Appreciating Genre Fiction

*Today’s guest post comes via Anne Stout. She, and TMR, would like to remind you to vote today.*

The first day of class is always the most exciting for me.  I’m that nerd who looks at the syllabus and thinks “Yay! We’re reading all of War and Peace instead of just skimming it!” Those dense, over-wordy books that could be legally considered blunt murder weapons? Those are my boys. In the academic world, this means I’m a classicist—Pre-modern and Romantic. And normally during classes this works out fine. Professors pick books that I love to reread, or ones I’ve been meaning to pick up anyway. Except this year. This year, my Advanced Fiction Writing syllabus contained a surprising entry. 

Now, Hunger Games was a cute book when I read it in high school. When I first picked it up, I thought it would be a nice quick read and wasn’t disappointed when the language targeted a middle school to high school reading level. The dystopian concept and gladiatorial-like games were interesting themes after reading 1984 and A Brave New World. Of course, these themes felt more like the setting and background for Katniss’ transformation to badass and newfound belief in girl power (Tell it to ‘em straight, girlfriend!). Even the dictatorial society set up and the rebellion that was spelled out for readers wasn’t anything new or a reinvention of famous apocalyptic narratives. It was a book meant primarily to entertain young readers.

 I’m not saying it was bad by any means, but it certainly wasn’t challenging for an avid teen reader. So why was it listed on my college syllabus? Was this a different book of the same name? A more complex and rhetorically written re-telling? Nope, it was the popular teen fiction book, angst ridden love triangle included with purchase. It didn’t help my horror that the movie Hunger Games had just come out and I was dealing with the new fangirls.

These are not the werewolf and vampire from the other series

 Safe to say, I was dreading the discussion of that book and (loudly) mentioning the degradation of the higher education system due to the “new wave” of thought and the free-lovin’ literature hippies that seemed to have taken over the English Department. And then my friends—all science majors—got tired of hearing me on a book rant and shot back. “ What about that Harry Potter class?”

 They were referring to a course offered at the University that looks at the Religion in Rowling’s series. Students in the class read the series in a semester along with other academic books, and discuss a variety of religions and mythology from Celtic to Roman to Christianity. Somehow, this course never bothered me. The instructor makes sure to keep the class academic and the subject matter is more than just “Ron and Hermoine need to just get together already” or “At first I hated Snape, but now he’s so sad I think I love him”. Easier to do when the class is based on lecture and enrollment capacity is about 200. My fiction is 17 students and completely based on discussion and back and forth engagement with text. But so, the day of reckoning came.

Reckoning

The five minutes before class started were dedicated to the movie. Hotness ratings of the actors average a solid 8, which was a nice change in the male dominated class. People had just started to reminiscence “their first time” with the book, when our instructor thankfully walked in and ended conversation. The following 30 minutes were a journey to relief, albeit a bumpy one. Superficial topics did happen. We had to discuss at least briefly the audience question. There had to be indignant defense of Collins’ cultural and societal relevance. Which is fine and I agree that this book has its place in the world.

 But then we talked about the book’s place in the classroom. Indirectly, my instructor answered my qualms and concerns one by one. She brought in other work, citing articles and academic research to prove Hunger Games could be interpreted as both anti-big government and anti socialism. She pointed out the foundations that built the book: the system of rules being used in society and Katniss’ own morality as a competing set of rules. This is what really caught me. The class could talk about something traditionally written and pretty mundane (there, I said it) in a way that was literary and interesting. Do I think Collins meant to include a conflict of primal urges versus civil advancement? I have an answer to that and my classmates had different answers, but the answer is not the point of the discussion. As an exercise in literary debating, analyzing text and subtext, relating written structure to societal mores and social games, the class accomplished its goal.

So here’s the part where I come to the clichéd realization that I might have been wrong the whole time. Except I refuse to go skipping happily down the road hand in hand with popular fiction in the classroom. This classicist still demands a challenging course schedule and reading list. Let’s not throw out the Tolstoy and Dickens out the window just yet (it might kill someone). But now I’m not opposed to open-mindedness and a little variety. If the book can be taught as literature and if the instructor has that finesse of experience and passion, then I will read any book assigned. After all, college is about the education, not the textbook.

The Importance of Thoughtful Editing (Or: Why I Tear Apart Manuscripts Like a Rabid Dog)

I don’t actually do this.

Throughout June, I edited the first draft of a novel for a friend of a friend. He was a first-time writer and I was the first person to read his 600+ page novel. Though I’d never edited a novel before, my creative writing classes and current position here at The Missouri Review convinced him I was up for the task. When we first met, the author asked me if I was a tough editor, and I told him yes.

“That’s good,” he said. “I don’t want you to go easy on me. I want you to be honest.”

“Okay,” I told him. “I’ll tear it apart.”

“Tearing apart” is the nickname I have for my editing style. To define tearing apart: when the constructive criticism for a piece of writing purposefully outweighs the praise. If I’m tearing apart a manuscript, I won’t return the document to the writer until I’ve filled all the margins with notes. Although I always make sure to highlight great moments in whatever I’m reading, I relentlessly search for weak moments. I nit-pick over word choice, circle unimpressive images, cross out irrelevant sentences, and engage the writer in my notes by asking questions about the story as I go. In general, I won’t stop editing until the manuscript is covered in colored ink.

Often, when I return a document and the writer sees my edits, they look like a truck just backed over their foot. Their gut instinct, always, is that my edits are solely negative and that I hated their writing. Once the writer reads my actual comments and realizes that I didn’t write “YOU SUCK” in the margins, they don’t seem quite so pained. In the case of the author whose novel I edited, when I met with him a week ago I gave him a three page outline addressing the main issues he needs to fix in his final draft, then discussed these issues at length for two hours. By the end, he said, “Honestly, I thought you were going to be meaner.” The fact that he felt this way, even after I suggested he cut entire chapters from the novel, illustrates the benefits of tearing apart a manuscript. Even though I recommended major cuts, I offered so many suggestions for revision that the author didn’t feel stunted. Most importantly, the amount of detail and attention I gave to each page proved that I cared about his writing. He trusted my opinion because he knew I cared.

Undoubtedly, there are professional editors, professors, and even fellow students, who edit the same way I do. This “tear it apart” idea is not unique to me, and probably carries many other snazzy names. However, during the three undergraduate writing workshops I’ve had, no one has ever torn one of my short stories apart. Yes, I received plenty of positive and negative feedback for each story. But no one ever handed me back a story covered in elaborate edits and said, “This is all right, but it’s not great yet. Let’s work on making it great.” This isn’t because I’m a talented writer. Rather, it’s because no one will look me in the eye and bluntly tell me what’s holding my story back from reaching its full potential.

While I’ve encountered many helpful fellow students in my past workshops, every workshop inevitably contains at least one person from the following two groups: the Cheerleaders and the Naysayers. The Cheerleaders focus on the positive aspects of a story either because a) they aren’t experienced enough to recognize the weak points in a story, or b) they don’t want to hurt the writer’s feelings with negative comments. The Naysayers, however, are writers who either a) can’t intelligently articulate their negative thoughts apart from saying, “I don’t know, this just fell flat,” or b) won’t offer thoughtful criticism because they think the story is simply a hopeless case. Whether it’s through overly positive or overly negative feedback, Cheerleaders and Naysayers produce the same result: vague, useless editing.

With my own work, historically, the Cheerleaders compliment the details or the overall tone of the piece. The Naysayers sometimes argue that the description is overwhelming. I’m quick to tune out the fluff and the snide remarks, and once the workshop ends I gather everyone’s notes in a pile and put them away with the draft. It’s not until months later, when I pull out the same story for a final edit and read with a more detached gaze, that I always notice the mistakes no one brought up during workshop: shaky plot points, wandering thematic elements, and too-neat dialogue. These are the kinds of mistakes that become more apparent during a second read-through or, arguably, a slow tear-it-apart first read. In these moments, I wonder if the Cheerleaders and Naysayers (as well as my uncategorized peers) actually felt my writing was great – or if they all suspected my story was a hopeless case, and were just too polite or lazy to tell me so.

This kind of bad attitude, this need to privately dismiss our peers’ imperfect first drafts, is what leads to poor editing in workshops, which eventually manifests itself into unexceptional writing. It’s true that only a handful of the writers in my past workshops will ever see their work published in a prestigious journal. It’s true that many of us will never finish writing a novel, much less see it in print. It’s true that most of us received an A for effort, regardless of whether our writing was flawed or flawless. But to dismiss any individual work as a hopeless case is nothing short of unfair. No piece of writing is a hopeless case. If an editor reads closely and analyzes the details, tears it apart page by page, he or she can always help lead the writer to a more fulfilling final draft. It’s not just about finding mistakes. It’s about investing the time and energy to show the writer that you believe in their work. Even if it means using a lot of ink.